Illegal armed groups have forced some 40,000 people to flee their homes as they fight for control of drug trafficking routes in Colombia's Catatumbo region bordering Venezuela, Human Rights Watch said yesterday. The international watchdog published a 64-page report on abuses committed against civilians by armed groups in the mountainous area. The situation reflects the significant security challenges that Colombia faces after the government signed a 2016 peace deal with the FARC guerrilla group, leaving a void that has been filled by smaller armed groups that have moved into Catatumbo and other remote areas unleashing a new wave of drug-fueled violence.
In the report called "The War in Catatumbo," Human Rights Watch says three armed groups are fighting over drug routes and coca plantations abandoned by FARC rebels in the region, including the Popular Liberation Army, the National Liberation Army and a small group of former FARC fighters. These armed groups have expelled thousands of rural dwellers from their homes, murdered community leaders and forcibly recruited children into their ranks, according to the report, which also includes interviews with children who have been forced to work harvesting coca leaves, the raw material for cocaine.
Catatumbo is about the size of Rhode Island. It borders Venezuela and in 2017 it produced about 15 percent of Colombia's coca crop, according to U.N. figures. The mountainous region has been used by drug traffickers as a staging point for exporting cocaine.